Fatih Akin’s 2004 film Head-On (Gegen die Wand) defies easy categorisation into a particular film genre, marked as it is by contradiction. For while building a sense of realism and linear drama within the film, Akin simultaneously exposes the artifice of this drama with the frequent employment of Brechtian distancing strategies. Akin has himself acknowledged the particular influence on Head-On of both Brecht and the films of his Brecht-influenced predecessor Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Directed by a Turkish-German filmmaker and centred around Turkish-German characters, Head-On moves beyond a clichéd representation of the Turkish-German situation, instead exposing and opening up such clichés to scrutiny by the spectator. And instead of offering solutions, Akin can be seen to raise questions about identity formation and cultural stereotype.
Brecht likened purely dramatic narrative forms to “narcotics”, which limit spectators to their emotional, sensory-motor inspired reactions.1 Such dramatic narrative forms operate on a basis of naturalism, governed by conventions of metric time, linear development, plot and character. Strategies of Verfremdungseffekt, literally translated as the effect of “making-strange”, distance the spectator from the process of empathetic identification set in gear by naturalistic drama, instead engaging their intellectual capacity. Although Brecht’s theories pertain to theatre, they are readily applicable to film. Konzett discusses Fassbinder’s use of Verfremdungseffekt to “break with the direct realism” in Katzelmacher (1969), using “static shots and deliberate mise-en-scène that turns the screen into a frozen tableau vivant with a conscious arrangement of characters, this stressing a reflexive and voyeuristic position on the part of the spectator.” 2 Konzett also notes Akin’s acknowledgment of the shared thematics between Head-On and Katzelmacher, as well as with another of Fassbinder’s films Angst Essen Seele Auf (1974), namely that of foreigners in Germany. 3 In making clear use of Verfremdungseffekt, both Fassbinder and Akin can be seen to use similar representational strategies to actively engage their spectator on a conceptual level, forging a platform from which to launch discussion and criticism.
Akin uses Verfremdungseffekt from the outset of the film, with an establishing shot of a seven-piece Turkish folk band, which Akin himself has described as a “Brechtian element”. Brecht often made use of Greek chorus in his plays, perhaps most notably in Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, who would interrupt and reflect on the action of the play, revealing the artificial construct of the narrative. The band in Head-On similarly acts as a self-reflexive framing device, appearing at the start and end of the film, as well as at pivotal moments throughout. The band, although clearly situated in Istanbul, does not intersect at all with the constructed reality of the characters of the film, who as Esen notes “end up in Istanbul, but certainly not in this place”.4 The band’s Istanbul is a brightly-coloured Orientalist “postcard” image of Istanbul. Throughout the band’s six appearances, the gradual transition from daylight into sunset can be observed, reflecting a time span conceivably akin to the two hour duration of the film itself, rather than the few minutes they are actually shown on screen. This is a conscious decision by Akin, as in order to give this effect he would have had to have wait for the light to change before recommencing shooting each part of their performance. They are therefore seen to move through time at a comparable rate to the spectator, disconnected from the rate of the film’s narrative, which is amplified to span years. This gives the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt of a chorus acting along with the spectator as an external observer to the narrative, a link to the artificially constructed nature of the film and a reminder that the film is not reality but rather a representation of reality. This is encapsulated by the band’s bow at the end, acknowledging the implied presence of a spectator to bow to, as well the fact that there has been a performance.
Akin also employs Verfremdungseffekt inside this frame, that is inside the world of the protagonists Cahit and Sibel, through use of soundtrack. Another element of Brechtian style is the choice of music which “takes up a position” rather than music which “illustrates” or “paints the psychological situation”.5 Although, as Suner notes, “in most scenes the lyrics resonate with the events depicted”,6 Akin also uses soundtrack as an interruptive gesture to draw conceptual links. Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” features at both Cahit and Sibel’s most isolated and desperate moments, once in the car scene preceding Cahit’s literal crashing “against the wall ” to which the film’s German title refers, and again where Sibel is shown drinking herself to oblivion before being raped. In both scenes the song is amplified over the diagetic sound, interrupting the spectator’s direct involvement with the action on screen by transporting them to the psychological world of each character. The second time acts as a trigger back to the first, actively inciting the spectator’s memory faculties. By using sound in this manner, Akin highlights the significance of these moments as important points of reflection. Akin has said that his protagonists, rather than acting as representatives of the Turkish-German minority in Germany, are individuals “auf der Suche” (“on the search”). Solutions are never found or at least never definitively, the search itself holding significance. At the two points where “I Feel You” features, both characters seem to feel their search has failed, and only after “crashing against a wall” and hitting rock bottom are they able to once again resurface and recommence their search.
Another use of Verfremdungseffekt is the self-reflexive use of mirror shots, as well as the appearance of cameras at Sibel and Cahit’s wedding, both of which act as an internal frame and emphasise the process of “looking” as well as of identity formation. Elsaesser notes the use of mirror shots as a “typical feature of much ‘self-reflexive’ cinema”, including that of Fassbinder who made use of “frequent mirror shots”7 in Angst Essen Seele Auf, a film which as previously mentioned draws significant thematic and visual comparisons to Head-On. Mirror shots reoccur throughout Head-On, acting to interrupt the action and offer points of reflection, for both the characters and the spectator. Also, at Sibel and Cahit’s wedding, the discomfort of being watched and judged is represented by a shot of cameras, followed by a reverse shot of Sibel and Cahit on a kind of staged platform with Selma and Seref, with Seref saying in Turkish “everybody’s looking”. The Verfremdungseffekt of both the mirror shots and the wedding shot sequence work within the conceptual framework of identity formation, or the “avoidance of” identity formation. As the characters are seeking to define themselves outside of the cultural identities prescribed to them by their Turkish-German background, the spectator is at the same time forced to question how they themselves might form cultural stereotypes.
As such, the representational strategies employed in Head-On can be seen to elevate Akin’s film beyond the immediate drama with an eye to provoke thought and discussion. Questions are raised, but solutions are intentionally left out, with Cahit and Sibel still very much undergoing the process of finding themselves. By leaving out these solutions Akin achieves a more authentic representation of Turkish-German culture, and cultural identity in general, as something resistant to broad categorisation – as something in constant flux along with the world around it.